I had the most embarrassing experience recently. You might think I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but, at the time I felt I was teetering on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
There might have been greater misdemeanours in the history of mankind, but this suburban debacle threatened our friendship with Paula and Geoff.
Paula is a sugar-coated almond. She looks sweet on the outside but is hard and brittle within. Her green eyes flash with the steel and determination required in a woman prepared, as she was, to consign her children to their own bedrooms right from birth. And it is probably the same emotional armour that enables her to cope with the frequent absences of her career-obsessed husband.
Geoff is affable and quick-witted and sometimes resembles a bewildered rabbit caught in the headlights – a look earned, possibly, by his not knowing what hit him when he married Paula. This is not to say that he is totally passive. He can give as good as he gets.
Their devotion to eachother usually cannot be doubted, but Geoff’s frequent business trips and company golf weekends smack of escape plans.
They had recently moved house. During Geoff’s absence Paula showed us around and mentioned that he would be making some improvements.
‘Oh, I hate that sort of thing,’ I said.
‘So does Geoff,’ said Paula, ‘In fact, he’s terrible at DIY.’
The rest of the afternoon was spent in the uncontroversial and refreshing company of Earl Grey and his Sponge Fingers. But the spring had been wound.
A couple of weeks later, we were walking home from the shops. Geoff drove up and offered us a lift. His car was partly loaded with the paraphernalia for refurbishing a bathroom.
‘Paula wants it done by Monday,’ Geoff said in a hangdog manner.
I couldn’t contain my surprise at this.
‘Are you doing it yourself?’
‘Yes,’ he replied while negotiating a right turn.
‘Oh.’ And this is the split second where I should have changed the subject, but my brain was otherwise engaged and my mouth had made plans of its own.
‘Oh. Paula said that you were no good at DIY.’
Geoff muttered under his breath, ‘Oh, did she…?’
My wife gasped.
The atmosphere was far too solid to be cut with a knife. A laser beam, perhaps? Geoff unloaded us with the minimum of pleasantries and left me to stew for the rest of the weekend.
And stew I did. Sleep was impossible. Over-eating was easy. I would undoubtedly see Paula outside school on Monday morning and she would quite justifiably demand what the hell I thought I was playing at. I imagined their weekend full of raging arguments, tears, supplication, flying crockery, slammed doors, emptied whiskey bottles and telephone calls to divorce lawyers. Perhaps their marriage was already a camel’s back and my foot-in-mouth disease would be the final straw.
Monday morning arrived as only Monday morning can – blueish. I took the children to school and awaited my fate. She wasn’t there. Oh, hell! I’m not going to wait another day to put my neck on the block. I hung back for a few long minutes. I was just about to leave when I saw her. In the distance, she looked severe and businesslike except for a pursed smile of determination on her face. It was like watching the approach of an executioner. My heart was attempting a fast tango and I was breathing like Rolf Harris. I only hoped I wasn’t sweating as well. As she drew closer, I noticed the rigid smile and the steely flash as the sun hit the pinpoint of her pupils. It was all taking too long. Come on woman! Stop toying with me! Get on with it! Give me what I deserve! I stretch myself on your altar of wrath! Strike me down now! Cut out my tongue for it hath offended thee! Lacerate me with your withering indignation! Whip me with your razor-sharp tongue! Her mouth opened. My eyes half-closed in an involuntary wince awaiting the inevitable onslaught. Get on with it! I can’t stand it any longer! Disembowel me with your burning spear of anger!
‘Morning, Simon. Nice weather for the time of the year?’
My eyes opened in amazement. My mouth closed. I stopped tearing at my clothes. I was off the hook.